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UW Life Sciences Program Earns High Marks in National Pilot Project

June 8, 2015
two women and a man looking at a computer screen with a projection behind them
Mark Lyford, director of UW’s Life Sciences Program, works with students Ashley Golden, left, and Raleah Cisneros in a course called Discovering Science, LIFE 1002. The Life Sciences Program received high marks in a pilot certification project of the Partnership for Undergraduate Life Sciences Education. (UW Photo)

Students taking undergraduate biology courses at the University of Wyoming are studying in an outstanding program that is at the forefront of national efforts to improve biology education, an organization funded by the National Science Foundation has concluded.

UW’s Life Sciences Program, which each year teaches about 2,200 students in 28 of the university’s academic departments, has been evaluated by the Partnership for Undergraduate Life Sciences Education (PULSE) as one of the top programs among eight institutions chosen for an ambitious pilot certification project.

The project is intended to provide incentives for colleges and universities across the country to transform their life sciences programs or biology departments, leading to broad national change in how undergraduate life science courses are taught. The nationwide PULSE effort coincides with UW’s Science Initiative, which aims to transform science education and improve student success at UW and across the state, while creating world-class facilities to propel research on issues important to the state and nation.

“Overall, the Life Sciences Program at UW is a strong program with a large core of engaged faculty centered on student success,” wrote PULSE evaluators Thomas Jack of Dartmouth College and Theresa Balser of the University of Florida, who visited UW last year. “It stands out as something the University of Wyoming should be proud of.”

UW’s Life Sciences Program was one of more than 70 nationwide to apply for the PULSE pilot project. The eight selected programs were chosen “based on initial evidence of transformed and innovative educational practices,” according to a PULSE media release.

The assessment showed that UW has made “significant movement toward” implementing the recommendations of “Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action,” a report issued by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2011. UW’s program was placed in “PULSE Progression Level II: Developing.”

The only one of the eight institutions to be placed in “PULSE Progression Level III: Accomplished,” was Davidson College, a private, 2,000-student liberal arts college in North Carolina.

“The legislative language that authorized the Science Initiative uses the term ‘top quartile’ to describe the aspirations for UW’s foundational science programs,” says Botany Professor Greg Brown, the associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences who chairs the Science Initiative executive planning team. “To put this in Science Initiative terms, the UW Life Sciences Program is already in the top quartile -- and still going up.”

The Life Sciences Program, headed by Director Mark Lyford and Assistant Director Brianna Wright, provides courses for students in the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and the College of Health Sciences. Faculty participants come from the departments of Botany, Zoology and Physiology, Molecular Biology, and Plant Sciences.

Life Sciences Program courses range from Introductory Biology, LIFE 1010, to 3000-level courses including Genetics and Ecology. Those courses provide the foundation for students to go on to receive degrees in majors ranging from nursing and physiology to fisheries and wildlife management.

“The Life Sciences Program does an excellent job of preparing students to succeed in a wide range of life science-related majors,” Jack and Balser wrote.

Specifically, the program scored highly for the commitment and engagement of the faculty to maximize student learning; the curriculum; student satisfaction; the quality of inquiry-based student laboratory exercises; focus on student success; training and mentoring of teaching assistants; and K-12 outreach efforts around the state.

“The leadership in the program has done an excellent job of creating a strong culture of teaching and learning among the faculty,” Jack and Balser wrote. “We very strongly had the sense that teaching is taken seriously at the University of Wyoming, and that mention of teaching excellence by (Arts and Sciences Dean Paula Lutz) and others is not just lip service.”

Areas where there is room for improvement, the evaluators said, include a need for better teaching laboratories; classrooms to better accommodate group learning; and institutional support for innovative teaching. Lyford notes that all three of those issues are being addressed at UW through this year’s opening of the Michael B. Enzi STEM Facility, the planned Science Initiative facility, and the Science Initiative’s Learning Actively Mentoring Program.

“I see this assessment as recognition that we’re doing some great things to help students succeed, while providing further impetus for the improvements that will come from the Science Initiative,” Lyford says.

“This is an initial check of how well we line up with the national effort, and we’re delighted to learn that we line up very well,” Wright says.

PULSE formed in 2012 to implement the recommendations of “Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action.” The collaborative effort was developed and funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and consists of 40 current or former life-science department chairs or deans who serve as Vision and Change Leadership Fellows.

The PULSE project places more emphasis on scientific reasoning and the ability to think critically rather than the mastery of facts only. Laboratory work is given a new prominence and shifts from teacher-directed exercises to student-centered ones, in which the students design their own experiments to answer the questions they generate.

“For too long, higher education has eschewed responsibility for assessing the quality of their courses, programs and gains in student learning. We are now seeing some of the consequences of this lack of involvement across the country as state legislatures and other bodies attempt to impose systems of assessment,” says Jay Labov, senior adviser for education and communication for the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council. “If the life sciences education community is willing to embrace and implement the rubrics (certification effort) developed by its own members, we may finally have a model for using valid and reliable assessments to improve learning, the quality of program offerings, as well as teaching.”

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